Bish Agrawal, founder of ABC Consultants and chairman of Accord Group India, is one of the earliest executive search entrepreneurs in the country. His companies have placed a quarter million people over the last half century across sectors for Indian conglomerates that include Mahindra & Mahindra, the Aditya Birla Group, the Tata group, the Wadia Group, and the Essar group as well as other mid-size firms across sectors. Agrawal himself has placed over 1,000 senior executives, and 150 managing directors. He is also the first Asian to be recognised by the AESC (Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants) for his pioneering role in the search and recruitment profession in India. In the midst of an uncertain year, there has been an acceleration to manage volatility across multiple ecosystems. Agrawal speaks to Fortune India about the shifting trends, competition from large overseas placement firms, and the big change for companies today. Edited excerpts:
How do you see the professional search trade change with work from home and new technologies for interviews and hiring?
I have scant respect for video-conferencing technologies in doing the jobs in total. It’s a support system that is needed but I don’t see it change the way senior executives are hired for the future. It may actually increase the value of a hiring consultant to get deeper insights and information. What technology does do is speed up volumes of interviews but for a certain type of CEO, you still need face-to-face meetings.
What’s the big challenge today for headhunters?
I think mapping the right search firm to the company is one. That’s important because today large companies are willing to pay high salaries quite frequently and across the board. Packages of ₹3 crore or ₹4 crore are routine. For an HR director, we got paid ₹1 crore and 11 lakh the other day. On the high side, for an executive it can go as high as ₹14 crore. In the good old days, ₹1 crore was a big deal. It now looks just like the American or European market. As promoters see valuations take off, it is easier to share the pie from one’s own assets.
How do you compete with SHREK (Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds Associates, Egon Zehnder, and Korn Ferry) now that they are all here?
The only real difference between global search firms and us is that they get called in and we have to pitch. The get called in because of their international reach and reputation and us for the same locally. But After the shootout takes place, it’s a quality test for everyone at the same level. That’s my opinion.
Your secret sauce for making the right executive fit at a company?
The research. Tapping the networks. The deep assessments. I work the phones. I use the desk research only as support while the rest comes from the phone. It’s perhaps the other way around for most. In India, references are never checked formally. Because no one says anything negative on paper but when you speak to a promoter one is to one, they express their views. What you get off the record is the real reference.
The inevitable change you see happening at large corporations?
The big shift will see promoters have a greater reliance on professional managers—it’s already happening. The powers that Sebi and RBI have and exercise now make it hard to play dirty.
How has the executive search business evolved over the last few decades?
When I returned from England and started my company, it was in the backwaters in terms of organised recruiting, data processing, research, [and with] no computerisation. The whole technology entry was halt-start-halt, so it was a bit of a roller-coaster. There were many mom-and-pop shops doing recruiting. The other thing, of course, is total specialisation. Earlier, one got involved even when there was a marriage. It was like being part of a family. Now it’s like investment banking. If it’s an energy company it would have to be an energy consultant. In the old days it was all about relationships and the trust you enjoyed from promoters. There’s also more openness about roping in exec search firms today and promoters have become more accepting about processes. We would have promoters tell us they don’t want people born on the 13th of a particular month. Or pay us a cash component. All that [has] changed.